Spring 2017

STS 3561 - Computing Cultures

Thu, Jan 26
Welcome, Computing Cultures!
An introduction to the class. We’ll review course mechanics and get a sense of the puzzles and problems we will tackle.

Here is some information on the 2013 UN Women campaign we discussed in class:

Action items:

Sign up for our course page on piazza.com (we're "STS 3561").

Complete tutorial on how to avoid plagiarism (no need to send in grades).

Basics: Concepts, Tactics, Sensibilities

Tue, Jan 31
Some Pretty Big Claims about Computing
Much talk about computing is characterized by rather strong and simple narratives. In this session, we will analyze a number of examples, explore the notion of "cyberbole", and learn some useful analytical tools.
  • Woolgar, Steve. “Five Rules of Virtuality.” In Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality, edited by Steve Woolgar, 1–22. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Crawford, Kate. Think Again: Big Data. Foreign Policy, May 10, 2013.

Thu, Feb 2
Case 1: “Computers”
What are computers and where do they come from? We’ll look at some of the (surprising) ways in which people have approached the history of computing.


Grier, David Alan. “Human Computers: The First Pioneers of the Information Age.Endeavour 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2001): 28–32.

Lunenfeld, Peter. The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011, pp. 142-178 (Chapter: Generations).

Graham-Cumming, John, The Greatest Machine That Never Was. TEDxImperialCollege, 2012.

Tue, Feb 7
Case 2: “Users”
When people talk about computers, they also talk about “the user”. In this session, we’ll have a closer look at this rather strange and mystical figure.
  • Wyatt, Sally. “Non-Users Also Matter: The Construction of Users and Non-Users of the Internet.” In: How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, 67–79. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2003.


Woolgar, Steve. “Configuring the User: The Case of Usability Trials.” The Sociological Review 38, no. S1 (May 1, 1990): 58–99.

Deadline for Essay 1 (Offline Life Diary): In class
Thu, Feb 9
Case 3: “Cultures”
New technologies are often said to be embedded in, represent, or make up “cultures”. But what does that actually mean? How can we think about cultures of computing? For this class, we will try to answer some of these questions through an ethnography of internet scamming.


Lysloff, Rene T.A. "Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography." Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 2 (2003): 233–263.

Turner, Fred. "Where the Counterculture Met The New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community." Technology and Culture 46, no. 3 (2005): 485–512.

Section 1: Private Worlds

Tue, Feb 14
Privacy and Boundaries
What counts as “private” and “public”, and why does it matter? How do people go about drawing the line between the two in practice?
Thu, Feb 16
Networked Privacy
Privacy is not just an everyday practical challenge, but also an important political issue. In this session, we’ll review and compare different approaches to conceptualizing privacy.


Nissenbaum, Helen. “A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online.” Daedalus 140, no. 4 (2011): 32–48.

Thu, Feb 23
Movie: Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013)
A documentary by Cullen Hoback about the many forms of surveillance and how they come together in a complex network of government agencies, companies, data brokers, and friends.
Tue, Feb 28
Surveillance at Work
Picking up from where the movie left us off, we'll be diving deeper into questions of everyday surveillance. What are the issues? How to think about them?
Thu, Mar 2
Hacking Resistance
What to do in view of all this talk about surveillance? We’ll have a look at some of the strategies people have employed to deal with new forms of surveillance.


Brunton, Finn, and Helen Nissenbaum. “Vernacular Resistance to Data Collection and Analysis: A Political Theory of Obfuscation.” First Monday 16, no. 5 (April 26, 2011).

The Zuckerberg Files.” The Zuckerberg Files. Accessed December 27, 2014.

Tue, Mar 7
Controversy: Should Cornell Police wear body cams?
We’ll have an in-class debate about a particular controversy: Should Cornell ban Yik Yak? This will allow us to engage with questions of anonymity, speech, and (un-)culture in local communities.
  • Prepare for discussion by doing you own research. What issues have come up on Yik Yak? Who is concerned about what? Have there been specific cases that can illuminate our understanding of the case?

Section 2: Data Worlds

Thu, Mar 9
Raw, Big, and Other Data
Data is “the new oil”, people say. But what actually counts as “data”? Is there such a thing as “raw” data?
  • Rosenberg, Daniel. “Data Before the Fact.” In Raw Data Is an Oxymoron, edited by Lisa Gitelman, 15–40. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.
Deadline for Essay 2: Friday, March 10, 5pm
Thu, Mar 16
Databases and Classification
Collecting information and entering it into a database sounds harmless. But in real life, the way we organize and process data can have profound consequences.
  • Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. “The Case of Race Classification and Reclassification under Apartheid.” In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, 195-225. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.


Law, John. “Seeing Like a Survey.” Cultural Sociology 3, no. 2 (July 6, 2009): 239–56.

Tue, Mar 21
Activity: Algorithmic Walk
In this class, we will go on a walk – an algorithmic walk. Please dress appropriately. We will go rain or shine.
  • Instructions in class.
Thu, Mar 23
The Politics of Algorithms
We will debrief the walk and think a bit further about algorithms. How to make sense of these powerful yet inscrutable entities?


Helmreich, Stefan. "Recombination, Rationality, Reductionism and Romantic Reactions: Culture, Computers, and the Genetic Algorithm." Social Studies of Science 28, no. 1 (1998): 39–71.

Seaver, Nick. "Algorithmic Recommendations and Synaptic Functions." Limn no 2 (2016).

Ziewitz, Malte. "Governing Algorithms: Myth, Mess, and Methods." Science, Technology & Human Values 41, no. 1 (2016): 3–16.

Tue, Mar 28
Rating Cultures
What happens when you invite people to rate their dishwashers, doctors, lawyers, hotels, haircuts, and ex-boyfriends online?
Thu, Mar 30
Design Challenge: Devise a Rating Scheme
We're going for an in-class design challenge: devise a rating scheme that solves a social problem (without creating too many new ones!).
  • No readings. Think about a social problem that might be tackled through some sort of review or rating scheme.
Tue, Apr 11
Poster Session and Presentations
We will conduct a poster session and present selected projects in class.
  • No readings.
Thu, Apr 13
Automation and Discrimination
Fairness is a big concern when it comes to “big data” applications. Who is responsible for associations and predictions made by statistical tools?


Ananny, Mike. “The Curious Connection Between Apps for Gay Men and Sex Offenders.” The Atlantic, April 14, 2011.

Deadline for Essay 3: Friday, April 14, 2016, 5pm

Section 3: Material Worlds

Tue, Apr 18
The Stuff of Computing
In the final section, we will attend specifically to materialities. How to think about the "stuff" computing cultures are made off?
Thu, Apr 20
Maintenance and Invisible Work
This session is about the invisible work we all depend upon but rarely talk about: IT support, software maintenance, data cleaning.


Irani, Lilly C., and M. Six Silberman. “Turkopticon: Interrupting Worker Invisibility in Amazon Mechanical Turk.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 611–20. CHI ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2013.

Tue, Apr 25
Global Trash
What happens to your iPhone 5 when you buy an iPhone 6? In this session, we will have a look at trash, and how it's travelling around the world with different implications for different people.
  • Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011, chapter 3, ‘Shipping and Receiving,’ pp. 74-100.
Thu, Apr 27
Undersea Networks
This session is about a set of things we take for granted: the vast network of undersea cables that connects us across continents and cultures.
Extended abstract for Essay 4 due: Friday, Apr 28, 2017, 5pm


Tue, May 2
Peer Review and Feedback
You’ll read and discuss each other’s feedback on extended abstracts.
  • Two assigned extended abstracts from your classmates.
Peer reviews due: before class
Thu, May 4
Movie discussion: Her (2014)
We'll discuss Spike Jonze's movie in class – and see what topics and themes from the past few weeks we might recognize.
  • Jonze, Spike. "Her." (2014). (The movie is available for streaming via Blackboard > Course reserves.)
Tue, May 9
Conclusion: Lessons and Leftovers
Time to say goodbye and look back at what we learned this semester.

Essay 4 due: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 4:30 PM